JUCO Notes: Church keeps on slugging for Palm Beach

The Palm Beach State (Fla.) College baseball team believes in going to Church.

That’s Ryan Church, their 6-foot-2, 215-pound first baseman and cleanup hitter. And Monday, Church cleaned up every chance he got in the Panthers’ 15-9 win that eliminated Navarro (Texas) College from the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.

The slugger went 5 for 5, drew a walk and drove in four runs, including the run that made it 9-9 in the eighth inning and forced an extra inning, plus the game-winner in the top of the 10th.

“He’s hot. He was named the most valuable player in the (Florida) state tournament, and he’s continued it here,” Palm Beach coach Kyle Forbes said. “He’s hot, and I hope we can keep it going.”

Church’s statistics through three games — 6 for 11, six RBI — still don’t reflect how well he’s hitting.

He has hit three balls off the wall at Suplizio Field — one to right, one to left and one to center — that ended up being singles instead of the sure-fire doubles usually associated with wall-banging.

“It’s just crazy how many singles I’m grabbing when I’m hitting it off the fence,” Church said.

No need to over-analyze

Palm Beach center fielder Mike Stemle kept it simple when explaining how momentum changed in the game against Navarro. The Panthers scored four runs in the first and upped their lead to 6-2 through four innings before the Bulldogs battled back to take a 9-6 lead after six.

“This park, the ball flies, the air’s thin,” Stemle said. “We got a lead early, and then they came back swinging the bats great, and then we came back and swung the bats even better, you know. That kind of sums it up, just swinging the bat. ... We just ended up coming out on top on the scoreboard.”

No comfortable leads at Suplizio

When Palm Beach took a 15-9 lead in the top of the 10th, Stemle didn’t assume the game was over, and he meant no disrespect to Panthers’ reliever Jose Lazaro, who was lights-out in the ninth and 10th. Stemle had seen how dangerous Navarro’s hitters were when they cracked three home runs — “They hit three bombs, they had me running all over the place,” he said — two in the fifth and one in the sixth.

“Anything can happen,” Stemle said. “I was out there in the last inning, and I was like, ‘We better get them out,’ because they could come back just easily.”

Bullpen brings out Lazaro’s best

Palm Beach reliever Jose Lazaro’s 4 1/3 innings of scoreless relief pitching stopped the Panthers from reeling and allowed them to claw back into the game. It appears he’s suited to the role, although he began the year as a starting pitcher.

“We used him in relief in the state tournament, and he did a great job, and then we brought him in relief here,” Forbes said. “He’s got great stuff, and he seems to thrive in the moment, you know, because the game he pitched in the state tournament, there was a lot of pressure, and he threw well. So, he seems to step up there when the time matters.”

Six of Lazaro’s strikeouts were on called third strikes, which Forbes explained with, “He’s got great stuff. You’re talking about a guy that runs it up there 93, 94 (mph) with a swing-and-miss breaking ball. He’s got great stuff, and he had a great outing today. ... He was using all of his pitches. I think his changeup is his third-best pitch, to be honest with you, and he threw some outstanding changeups that kind of froze them. You’re talking about he was throwing three above-average pitches for strikes. It was awesome. It was an awesome outing.”

Lazaro said he’s fine with whatever role is needed, adding, “I’m ready to start, (come) out of the bullpen, I don’t care, anything.”

Who says catchers are slow?

Palm Beach catcher Jon Corbitt legged out a triple in the 10th inning for Palm Beach when Navarro’s center fielder lost the ball in the sun. That might be the way most catchers are going to hit a three-bagger, but not Corbitt, who also doubled Monday.

“I led the team in triples,” the 6-1, 205-pounder said. “I have three or four, I think.”

It’s four, and it indeed leads the team, which is a bit of a surprise on a squad with the fleet-footed Stemle, who now has 53 steals on the season after swiping two Monday. Stemle has stolen four bases in three JUCO games

Sending others home is kind of fun

While a Palm Beach victory in the first round would have been preferred, Church has taken a liking to the do-or-die nature of elimination games, where the Panthers have prevailed twice since that 6-4 opening loss to Central Alabama.

“Every time we win a game now, we’re sending someone home,” he said, “and that’s a pretty cool feeling.”

Church added the Panthers have the mental makeup to persevere when things get tough, such as the 9-6 deficit against Navarro.

“It probably sounds cliché, but we’ve been there, and we’ve actually been in a lot worse situations, and we’ve found a way to win games,” Church said. “You look up and down our dugout, and no one’s scared of a big moment ... I don’t care who he is. You throw him out there, he’s going to come through for you, and we know that.”

Texas talent taking next step

A 15-9 loss to Palm Beach eliminated 2011 JUCO champion Navarro (Texas) College, ending the Bulldogs’ bid for another championship. But it didn’t end many Navarro players’ baseball careers. Twelve are signed to play NCAA Division I baseball, and four likely will be drafted.

Catcher John Clay Reeves is signed up to play for former San Jacinto coach Wayne Graham at Rice. Outfielder Byron Reichstein is signed with West Virginia, and pitcher Lukas Schiraldi will attend the University of Texas. Schiraldi’s father, Calvin, also pitched for Texas, and might be best known as the losing pitcher for the Boston Red Sox during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, the game the Red Sox lost when a ground ball went between the legs of first baseman Bill Buckner.

Outfielder Kaleb Goodell will play for Texas A&M, and first baseman Tyler Wilson has signed with Tulane.

Reeves, Schiraldi, Reichstein and pitcher Blake Griffin likely will be drafted in the major league draft, Navarro coach Whoa Dill said.

Getting armed for another run

With so many Navarro players leaving and few returning starters, Dill has to rely on recruiting to restock the Bulldogs. He thinks he’s going to be all right.

“This group of pitchers coming in, I tell you, it could be a very special group,” Dill said. “Offensively we’re going to be OK. Pitching has been a focus for us because of our park. We have a big yard, and the wind blows in a lot.”

Bad time to bunt

Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist coach Tim Wallace wasn’t happy to see Brandon Burris, his freshman designated hitter, put down a one-out bunt for a base hit with a 13-0 lead against Connors State (Okla.) College.

“I’m P.O.‘d that we bunted up 13-nothing,” he said after the Pioneers’ 17-0 victory. “I felt halfway guilty with a 3-2 count in the third running, but I’m just trying to stay out of a double play. The bunt, we haven’t been in this situation (with a huge lead).

“Nobody’s ever told him. I had just stood here and told the dugout the pitch before, ‘There’s no bunting for hits, no bunting for hits,’ but (Burris) can’t hear it at the plate. I really feel bad about that.”

The next batter, Wesley Rogers, was hit by a pitch.

“The bunt shouldn’t have happened. We did stop running in the third, but the bunt leaves a sour taste, and I’m sure he’s (Connors coach Perry Keith) not happy about it, and I don’t blame him,” Wallace said. “I’d have hit the next guy, too.”

BP Blues

The Pioneers don’t exactly love batting practice, but the way they run BP is working, so don’t expect it to change.

“They’ve taken one round of BP in the last four weeks where I’ve just let them swing,” Wallace said. “That was the first day in Grand Junction. I told them to go out there and see how far you can hit it, enjoy, but after that we’re going back to up the middle, the other way, every round.

“It’s boring, and they hate it, but all of a sudden the last month they’ve seen, ‘Hey, that guy’s not an idiot, this might work.’ “

Memorial Day Festivities

The bases used during infield practice before the night game were decorated with the stars and stripes, but they were changed out before the first pitch.

Former Colorado Gov. John Vanderhoof was honored before the game, on his 91st birthday.

Vanderhoof, a former fighter pilot, was shot down three times in World War II and was once declared dead when he was missing in action. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed his death certificate.

Six white doves were released before the game, one for each member of the JUCO Committee who passed away since last year’s tournament, after which a large covey of doves were released.

During their flight over the stadium, two doves hit the protective netting behind home plate, settling into the crowd. One found its way out of the stands, the other appeared stunned, was retrieved by a fan and returned to its handler.

A capella group MO5AIC, which reached the semifinals in “America’s Got Talent,” performed the national anthem before the game and also sang during the fireworks after the game. One member of the five-man group, Josh Huslig, is from Grand Junction and grew up attending JUCO games.


The first two games Monday averaged more than 5,000 fans, with the night game, traditionally one of the largest crowds of the season because of the fireworks, numbered 11,998. Monday attracted 23,506 to the park and brings the three-day total to 66,194.


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